“You’re seeing through the curtain,” the younger Williams recalled this month.
But knowing the truth didn’t stop Williams from watching those scary movies. If anything, it ignited a fascination. At 34, after years of booking sporadic acting gigs and more recently directing music videos, she’s releasing her own monster movie: “Lisa Frankenstein,” about a late 1980s high school student who falls in love with a reanimated corpse. Based on a screenplay by Diablo Cody (“Juno,” “Jennifer’s Body”), the newly released horror flick marks Williams’ directorial debut.
As the title suggests, “Lisa Frankenstein” is much more interested in the creator of the monster. The creature (portrayed by a speechless Cole Sprouse) acts as a foil for Lisa (Kathryn Newton), an extravagant but misunderstood teenager prone to mishaps. Still mourning her mother’s murder, Lisa tries to fit in with her prickly new stepmother (Carla Gugino) and familiar stepmother (Liza Soberano). She helps the Creature replace his missing body parts by killing and stealing replacements from people who have wronged her, a low crime in this strange universe that gives her a renewed sense of purpose.
For Williams, who is also the daughter of film producer and philanthropist Marsha Garces Williams, Cody’s unconventional love story offered a sweet escape.
“They are in a world where death is not permanent,” she said. “And I’m not condoning people who kill people as a personality trait. … but in this fantasy version of the world, [Lisa] become the biggest version of yourself in a very fearless, shameless way. I really like that about young women.”
Lisa and the Creature bond over their violent escapades, such as when they seek revenge on an evil one classmate by cutting off his hand and attaching it to the Creature. But they also hang out like regular teenagers, listening to the Cure and trying on silly outfits in Lisa’s closet.
“I’ve never done a camp movie like this,” Newton said. “It was absurd.”
Williams was struck by the playfulness of Cody’s script, which influenced her directorial choices. It took visual inspiration from the bright red colors of Pedro Almodóvar’s 1990 dark comedy, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!”, and took tonal cues from 1981’s An American Werewolf in London, in which director-director John Landis touches on the absurdity of the creature navigating mundane situations.
“When a monster isn’t monstrous, it becomes almost immediately funny,” Williams said. “No matter how scary a movie is, or how stupid, there’s something about it [those scenes] where the monster isn’t jumping around and scaring you, but just having a casual conversation or, like, drinking coffee.”
“Lisa Frankenstein” recalls the absurdity of Beetlejuice’s conversation in the drawing room at the end of the 1988 film and the gritty violence of “Death Becomes Her”. Newton also watched that 1992 cult comedy as she prepared to play Lisa, a far more outlandish role than most of her previous ones, but focused mostly on Gene Wilder’s brilliant performance in the 1974 horror parody classic Young Frankenstein .
“The more shocking I was, the more I scared people — the more I felt like Lisa,” Newton said.
Williams added, “I didn’t give her any limits and say, ‘How big does this character want to be?’ In a comedy, you can push those boundaries. That’s not realism. … Let’s try that energy of unpredictable.”
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The director did not hold back her imagination either. She bowed to a strange wound because violence was not the intention. “This is just a means to an end for more body parts,” she explained. The comedy ultimately serves to ease viewers into the story of a young woman overcoming tragedy.
The creature is real to Lisa, who accidentally summons it from the grave in a moment of desperation. But his devotion is also a reflection of Lisa learning to love her darker personality traits. The weirder she gets—the bolder her makeup, the wilder her behavior—the closer she gets to being found. The creature is a healthy dose of self-love disguised in the decaying body of a dead man.
“There’s something quite beautiful about a gentle monster,” Williams said. “I loved making him Lisa’s straight man. It was like combining a really nice wine with a crazy burger order.”